The World as Contingent Space

xtro realm / Climate Imaginary Reader

Modern thought does not bear the unpredictability of nature. Throughout the history of philosophy, many thinkers have warned that we should handle the factuality of our knowledge with reservations, but contemporary thought is determined by the common beliefs rooted in the polar opposites modernism and post-modernism represent. According to the interpretation of the former, humanity has conquered nature via scientific and technological development, overcoming its vulnerability – the sort of defenselessness that the world’s contingent and unpredictable events induced. Meanwhile, many approaches rooted in the latter relativize scientificity and are especially skeptical with regard to our knowledge about the climate catastrophe. These suggests that greenhouse gas-induced climate change is but a cunning exaggeration, but also that technological innovation will resolve the issue if the threat proves to be real. Such common narratives may lead us to question whether the world is cognizable for man. What does our dependence on our environment and the unpredictability that we are all experiencing due to the coronavirus crisis mean? And how does the imaginary that ends our paralysis stemming from the climate catastrophe and the environmental destruction-spurred pandemic look?


Alicja Kwade: PARS PRO TOTO, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art / Kim Hansen. Installation view: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark. Source: alicjakwade.com

Quentin Meillassoux, contemporary French philosopher, reinterprets David Hume’s billiard ball metaphor when exploring the contingency of the world1. Hume asks whether we are indeed able to predict the movement of a ball that has been hit. We imagine this scene by assuming that, as one ball hits the other, the speed of the first one is reduced while the latter moves in the determined direction. Hume’s initial approach tackles the question of how arbitrary this deterministic interpretation is, given its propensity to identify and deduce cause with confidence. Interpreting it this way ignores, even excludes, certain potential outcomes. For instance, what if the ball that was hit remains static and the impact forces the moving ball to reverse course? Meillassoux posits that the example is not a matter of epistemology. That is, the case described above should not be preoccupied with the factors that we do not know, such as whether the static ball is fixed to the table – the laws of physics should still enable us to calculate the outcome. Even if we momentarily do not know all the formative factors, we can presume an ability to interpret the initially unexpected outcome once we have uncovered all determinants2. Meillassoux’s interpretation of Hume’s speculation is that it is not a question of epistemology, but one of ontology: it is not about acquiring knowledge, but of the possibility that the unexpected constellations occurring on the billiard table cannot be explained by the laws of physics. The natural laws governing the world are not perpetual – their operation is contingent. Meillassoux suggests that the world’s contingency is both necessary and eternal. Imponderability can always occur when we understand the world as a contingent space.

The coronavirus pandemic can be seen as a paramount example of contingency. COVID-19 threatens to claim thousands of lives, according to data available from previous global pandemics. It has killed over a quarter of a million people since it first surfaced and has fundamentally disrupted our regular lives which have given way to a lifestyle predicated on fossil fuel-based capitalism, ushering in wide-ranging ecological destruction and threatening the sustained existence of humanity. For decades, climate action leaders have attempted to draw attention to the ecological implications of pollution and the depletion of natural resources. However, we did not expect the world to grind to a halt due to the global spread of a virus. The looming threat was overlooked, despite forewarning and its appearance in the imaginaries of prominent cultural products such as science fiction. Epidemiological professionals and ecologists have been alerting us for years that a globalized, industrialized, urbanized world provides the perfect infrastructure for the spread of a pandemic, while healthcare systems remain inadequate. We perceived the Spanish Flu that occurred over a century ago (caused by the H1N1 influenza virus) as an incomprehensible quasi-medieval memory. Additionally, the global North dismissed the risks of the 2014 Ebola and the 2016 Zika pandemics with a sort of “Developed World arrogance”. However, this attitude has impeded our ability to seriously consider the real risks a pandemic poses, since we thought about these former cases as something that could not happen to us. It is worthwhile remembering that coronavirus was the object of racist humor just a few months ago. We root a sense of invincibility in basing our expectations of tomorrow on our experiences of yesterday. Habit shapes our presumptions: the sun will rise tomorrow. And now we are stumped by the fact that a new pathogen has halted the operation of the world as we know it.

The global quarantine has highlighted how framing nature as a background for civilization is both false and unsustainable. The world is unpredictable and, if we think about man as a part of a broader ecosystem, we must accept that we cannot dominate or control the complex dynamics of the Earth. If we accept what biodiversity experts have been repeating, namely that climate change and environmental destruction will lead to further pandemics and forgotten disease agents resurfacing, we must focus on their root causes and not limit our inquiry to speculating on how to avert coronavirus and its direct socio-economic impacts. We have known about global warming and its implications for decades. The atmospheric models that scientists have developed over the course of the past decades have provided eerily accurate predictions of rising atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations and their effects on the climate. Modelling the complexity of the ecosystem poses an even greater challenge. Although we have known that climate change is happening, its continuity has insulated us from experiencing a shock as radical as the current one. The world has imperceptibly changed into an environment similar to the pre-modern contingent space, reintroducing the vulnerability of humans and the contingency of life. Ten years ago, a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean reflected the West Coast dream, but annual Californian wildfires have turned living there into a hazard. Whether we seek solutions based on our experience of a changing environment through an epistemological or ontological approach is focal in shaping proposals addressing climate change. Does the world become incomprehensible and unpredictable due to the implications of climate change and ecological catastrophes, or can we continue to model it with scientific methods? Does life embedded in a global capitalist system become just as existentially vulnerable as was the case in earlier historical epochs? We cannot uphold the illusion that our civilization is safe, as climate change and our exposure to natural forces rise exponentially. The question is how we can invoke an understanding of contingency in our counteractions.

To confront the climate catastrophe, we need to adopt a worldview that acknowledges the world’s contingency and accept the vulnerability of mankind. To this end, we must rethink the dichotomy between man and “nature”, revising the myth of subjugation. Contingency does not manifest in the occurrence of unexpected events, but rather in the fact that nature cannot be dominated or altered without end or consequences as per the wants of man. The ecosystem will recurrently signal that it abides by its own laws. We must include contingency into this equation as a variable with the help of our imagination. Moreover, we must recognize the ideological determination of the political parlance communicating the climate catastrophe and the colloquialisms it spurs. But what sort of imaginary are we in need of? The social imaginary3 is the collective dimension of the independent radical imaginary necessary for revolutionary change, based on which a community organizes itself, institutionalizes its norms, and with the help of which it dynamically changes itself4. Interpreting the present system in its historical context is possible with the help of the social imaginary, which can lead to us developing a future alternative to it as well. We must expand our thinking about future societies by re-evaluating their relation to nature. It is impossible to imagine a more equal, democratic future that develops in response to the growing risk of a tipping ecosystem without the radical manifestation of a climate imaginary which promotes this approach.5 Humanity’s late and, until now, ineffective response to the climate catastrophe demonstrates the difficulty of developing an acceptable future that spans communities, one that could stimulate real social change. Imagination is currently inadequate across the entire human timeline: we are not able to realistically assess the gravity of the current situation, identify causes rooted in the past, and thereby design a sustainable6 and eco-sufficient7 future. We must therefore take into account the local and global pre-determination of our thought in developing a radical climate imaginary to enable the liberation of our imaginary. Socially confronting the local challenges of the climate catastrophe is only possible if we are able to answer fundamental questions, including: what do we see as nature? From where do climate catastrophe narratives stem? And, how do we imagine a society reorganizing according to the changing environment?


Translated by John Szabo.


Anna Zilahi is a Hungarian poet and artist, who studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. The Whale is not a Motif, her first collection of poems was published in 2017. As a member of the xtro realm artist group, she was co-editor and co-author of extrodæsia – Encyclopedia towards a Post-Anthropocentric World (201), an intermedial dictionary calling for a perspective shift from anthropocentrism facing the challenges of climate change. Inspired by Indigineous philosophies, her interest currently lies in alternative concepts of knowledge which criticize the scientificity of Western modernism and embedding ecofeminist endeavors into her practice. In her text-based and sounding works she seeks a non-visually focused sensual concept of art.


The Climate Imaginary Reader is edited by the members of xtro realm artist group, Rita Süveges and Anna Zilahi, editor of visual material is Gideon Horváth.


Climate Imaginary Reader

Preface – by Anna Zilahi
The World as Contingent Space – by Anna Zilahi
The Politics of Susceptibility – by Héla Hecker
Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Space Cabin: A Politics of Care in the Shadow of Space Colonization – by Réka Patrícia Gál
Between Two Giants: Materialism and the Social Imaginary in the Energy (Transitions) of Hungary – by John Szabo
Beyond the Postcard: an Ecocritical Inquiry on Images of Nature – by Rita Süveges
The Long March through Social Imagination – by Márk Losoncz


Bibliography

Castoriadis, Cornelius. L’institution Imaginaire de la Société. Paris: Seuil,1975.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyun Kim. Dreamscapes and Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Lóránt, Kicsák. 2017. “A társadalmi képzelőerő szerepe a társadalmi-történelmi világ konstitúciójában és megváltoztatásában. Cornélius Castoriadis reménye.” Performa, 6. http://performativitas.hu/kicsak_lorant_a_tarsadalmi_kepzeloero_szerepe_a_tarsadalmitortenelmi_vilag_konstituciojaban_es_megvaltoztatasaban_cornelius_castoriadis_remenye

Meillassoux, Quentin. Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction. Univocal Publishing, 2015.

Milkoreit, Manjana. “Imaginary politics: Climate change and making the future.” Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 5, 62. http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.249

Salleh, Ariel. “Ökofeminizmus.” Fordulat 25. szám, Klímaváltozás és kapitalizmus, Társadalomelméleti Kollégium. 2019. 149. http://fordulat.net/pdf/25/FORDULAT25_SALLEH_OKOFEMINIZMUS.pdf


Notes

1 Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction (Univocal Publishing, 2015)

2 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

3 Cornelius Castoriadis, L’institution Imaginaire de la Société (Paris: Seuil, 1975)

4 Kicsák Lóránt, “A társadalmi képzelőerő szerepe a társadalmi-történelmi világ konstitúciójában és megváltoztatásában. Cornélius Castoriadis reménye. [The Role of the Social Imaginary in the Constitution and the Changing of the Socio-Historical World. Cornelius Castoriadis’ Hope]” Performa, 6., 2017

5 Sheila Jasanoff, and Sang-Hyun Kim, Dreamscapes and Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

6 Manjana Milkoreit, “Imaginary politics: Climate change and making the future.” Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 5, 62. http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.249

7 Eco-sufficiency is the endeavor to manage resources and energy in a conscious manner in order to minimize their use. In: Ariel Salleh, “Ökofeminizmus.” IN.: Fordulat 25. szám, Klímaváltozás és kapitalizmus, Társadalomelméleti Kollégium, (2019), 149.

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